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Chapter 1 - De Loutherbourg’s Mesmeric Effects

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2021

Stephanie O'Rourke
University of St Andrews, Scotland


The first chapter situates Philippe de Loutherbourg’s work in relation to animal magnetism. It reveals how his art dramatized the exact structural characteristics of animal magnetism that made it both enormously popular and widely discredited – namely, its twin claims to possess significant control over the body and to lie beyond the reach of conventional scientific forms of apprehension or measurement. Revisiting several of de Loutherbourg’s major British and Swiss paintings, it argues that they cultivated effects of profound perceptual ambiguity and in doing so illuminated the epistemological fault lines along which animal magnetism was positioned. When London critics subsequently described his paintings as “magnetic,” they, in turn, drew on that science to articulate – even to conceptualize – their experience of looking at art.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

In 1790, the Alsatian-born, London-based artist Philippe de Loutherbourg painted A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard (Figure 1.1). In it, a man stands before an emptied grave in the ruins of an old church. His left hand gestures down toward the open earth, but his eyes are transfixed by a painting of Christ – a fresco, perhaps. On the ground, in the form of a stone relief on the discarded lid of a tomb, another man’s supine body is sketchily rendered in worn contours of inky brown. Fabric gathers around the protagonist’s prominent front leg, swooping up from his foot toward a book at his torso and forming a darkened line that draws the eye up to the top of the arch on the left. There, a figure of Christ triumphant is outlined in diluted streaks of umber, completing the triangular arrangement. His flesh, barely distinguishable in tone from the background, is almost transparent. Our philosopher finds himself betwixt and between two corporeal modalities: below him lies the opacity and obdurate physicality of matter; above him, the vitreous immateriality of spirit.

Figure 1.1 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, oil on canvas.

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1974.3.4.

In the year leading up to the production of this work, London had been abuzz with the news of de Loutherbourg’s brief sabbatical from painting to practice “animal magnetism,” a scandal-ridden and discredited medical therapy. A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard was one of several signs that the artist had left his calamitous medical career behind and resumed making the kinds of artworks for which he was celebrated. The painting’s dramatic contrast of light and dark, ruins overtaken by natural growth, and shadowy backdrop of indeterminate depth were features familiar to his viewers even though they deviated from the morally elevated, civic-minded model of history painting espoused by the Royal Academy’s founding president Sir Joshua Reynolds and the luminaries that followed him, including Benjamin West and the young Thomas Lawrence. Despite their popularity de Loutherbourg’s landscapes and history paintings were routinely criticized for being melodramatic, difficult to read, and full of theatricality and tension. (This charge was amplified by the fact that de Loutherbourg formerly worked as a designer of sets and showpieces for one of London’s most popular theaters – at the very moment when the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition was striving to distinguish itself from and in direct competition with such theatrical attractions.)1 Owing to the painting’s ambiguous but elegiac narrative content, A Philosopher is sometimes now associated with the late eighteenth-century “Gothic” style epitomized in the novels of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis and subsequently embraced by a number of Romantic writers and poets.2

Beyond the populated, bright wedge of the left foreground, the canvas is overtaken by unbounded vegetal forms, a half-obscured ruin, and a thick gray screen of moonlit clouds. There, mottled greens and diluted grays soften and blur the boundaries of material and immaterial, opaque and transparent, determinate and indeterminate. Insofar as it lingers on the threshold of what can be shown and what can be seen, this undelineated, elemental pictorial expanse recalls what Hubert Damisch once wrote of the cloud in quattrocento painting: it “contradicts the very idea of outlines and delineation” and negates “the solidity, permanence, and identity that define shape.”3 Such features were unwelcome in the idealized, Italianate landscapes held in highest esteem by the Academy and likewise in the lucid, detailed topographical landscapes that were gaining popularity. Of course, de Loutherbourg was hardly the only artist in late eighteenth-century Britain who was pushing the boundaries of landscape painting; John Cozens, William Hodges, and Thomas Gainsborough were among those who tested the limits of the genre and infused it with dynamic pictorial effects. Yet as we will see, de Loutherbourg’s strange formal devices did more than simply invigorate the conventions of landscape painting. They dramatized several of the problems motivating the popular controversies animal magnetism had aroused across Western Europe. Also known as “mesmerism,” animal magnetism was a medical practice that claimed to control immaterial forces and effect elemental transformations through means that could not themselves be directly apprehended.4 Mesmerism conjured up a world with porous physical boundaries, indirect causalities, and mysterious powers.5

Although the artist actively studied and practiced animal magnetism for a significant period of time, in this chapter I do not argue that his paintings actually “portray” it – at least not in any straightforward sense. Instead I explore how they operated within and allude to some of the epistemic fault lines to which mesmerism fell prey in the 1780s. Chief among these was the fact that animal magnetism could not be directly observed and that it was as such impossible to establish a definite causal link between its supposed imperceptible causes and perceptible effects – aspects that set it at odds with the dominant procedures of empirical scientific study. Yet many (including de Loutherbourg) continued to practice it after it had been publicly discredited. His art emphasizes the very features that made mesmerism so problematic, that enabled it to linger on the margins of credibility even as it was emphatically attacked by the scientific establishment. Alongside his paintings’ articulate representational structures we find subtler and more unsettling relationships being expressed to do with material bodies and immaterial forces, the powers and limits of human perception, the reliability of experience, and threats to the very possibility of a fully visible and coherent pictorial field. In this way we can look anew to de Loutherbourg’s art, not to explain how the artist stood apart from his peers at the Royal Academy but instead to consider how his work engages with some essential features of a crisis around credibility and empiricism that came to a head in the late eighteenth-century practice of mesmerism – a crisis, moreover, that participated in a broader reconfiguration of post-Enlightenment knowledge-making processes.

As the first extended case in the larger history that this book addresses, de Loutherbourg’s study of mesmerism falls on the outermost edges of what we would expect from an artist’s engagement with a scientific practice. Unlike the following two chapters, it requires a mode of analysis animated as much by the power of suggestion as by traditional forms of evidence, just as the “science” itself is largely unrecognizable to us as such. Beginning on the diffuse boundaries of science, however, is precisely the point for a book that aims to engage with the heterogeneous and heterodox nature of late Enlightenment science. Consensus and causality were among the most pressing challenges for the scientific study of animal magnetism, just as they riddle the present-day study of de Loutherbourg – an artist who deliberately suppressed and manufactured information about his own life, not only misrepresenting details about his background but also actively swindling at least one person for financial gain. In what follows, I examine a number of his paintings that engage with these challenges, paying close attention to their portrayal of elemental and immaterial forces, their adjacency to stagecraft and illusionism, and their deviation from the principles of direct observation. De Loutherbourg and Mesmer were each, in their own way, marginalized and discredited; each one found himself periodically on the wrong side of the line being drawn between legitimate and illegitimate (and by extension, trustworthy and untrustworthy) kinds of display. Likewise, the public reception of both mesmerism and de Loutherbourg’s art reflected greater cultural anxieties about spectacular modes of instruction and entertainment around the turn of the century. De Loutherbourg’s viewers – and at times the artist himself – often struggled to make sense of the world in front of them, a world in which causal relationships and concrete boundaries are suspended, obscured, or upended.

Mesmer’s Powers

The medical therapy Mesmer invented differs significantly from the version that eventually found its way to de Loutherbourg. However, its early history is important for understanding mesmerism’s guiding theoretical precepts in addition to the challenges it posed to conventional forms of scientific investigation. The initial success and public discrediting of his therapy disclose some of the moral and scientific values with which perceptual clarity was endowed at the end of the eighteenth century, as well as the strains to which it was subjected. Mesmer was originally trained as a medical doctor in Vienna, where he claimed to have discovered a mysterious force with significant curative powers.6 Although it was distinct from the attraction and repulsion of particles within a magnetic field, Mesmer named this force “animal magnetism,” which he used to describe a vital fluid that pervades the human body. (The term would subsequently become synonymous with “mesmerism.”) The physician proposed that man’s physical ailments result from blockages or disequilibria within the body, which could be remedied by transmitting some of this fluid from his own body to the affected parts of his patients. He soon established a small healing clinic at his home where patients supplemented therapeutic sessions with the doctor by drinking “magnetized” water, eating off “magnetized” plates, sitting in “magnetized” chairs, and even wearing “magnetized” clothing.

Animal magnetism met with early success after being credited with several high-profile cures in Vienna that were widely reported in the German-speaking press. Maximilian III Joseph invited Mesmer to his court in Munich. There, after curing a number of patients, the young doctor was inducted into the Bavarian Academy of Science. However, institutional approval eluded him back in Vienna where the medical faculty publicly accused him of fraud. Upon relocating to Paris, the doctor developed a magnetic “tub” or baquet, a low, rounded oak reservoir said to contain a significant concentration of animal magnetism, out of which iron bars protruded. Patients were seated in concentric rows around the tub, where they each directed magnetic fluid to affected body parts through the iron rods. The restoration of health was marked by a “crisis,” a crucial stage in which a patient’s magnetic equilibrium or flow was restored. The crisis could be physically manifested in any number of ways, including the sensation of intense pressure, warmth, or sharp pain; physical convulsions; “wildness in the eyes,” in the words of one contemporary witness; and, he continued, “shrieks, tears, hiccupping, and immoderate laughter.”7 Equally, a crisis could be signaled by sedateness, fainting, or unconsciousness.

It was in France that Mesmer achieved the height of his fame and yet also faced devastating public repudiation. In 1778, he befriended Charles d’Eslon, the first physician to the Comte d’Artois, brother of King Louis XVI. D’Eslon styled himself as Mesmer’s protégé and championed animal magnetism among both members of the Parisian medical faculty and the public. In the late 1770s and early 1780s, Mesmer’s animal magnetism clinic flourished and was attended by many prominent members of Paris’s haute monde. Within the court, Mesmer gained favor with Madame du Barry, the formal mistress of the recently deceased King Louis XV, and the Princesse de Lamballe, a close companion of Marie Antoinette. Disheartened by repeated rejection from the Académie des sciences, Mesmer briefly left Paris. In a bid to prevent his departure, Antoinette offered him a generous lifetime pension to establish a school of mesmerism in the French capital, which Mesmer refused. In his absence, Mesmer’s practice of animal magnetism continued to thrive through a “Society of Harmony” founded to disseminate his teachings. Approximately twenty such societies, which resembled Masonic lodges in their secretive, graduated system of study, were formed in the French provinces. Members included prominent physicians, politicians, and aristocrats. The Marquis de Lafayette, for example, having returned from his triumphant role in the American Revolution, joined the Parisian Society of Harmony and warmly recommended mesmerism to his close friend George Washington, resulting in an affectionate exchange of letters between Washington and Mesmer in 1784.8

Mesmer dedicated the greater part of his professional life to securing institutional recognition for animal magnetism without much success. Having repeatedly tried and failed to attract supporters among France’s foremost scientists, the physician was increasingly dogged by charges of charlatanism and misconduct. A roughly contemporary caricature (Figure 1.2) reveals some of the most common charges against him. Foremost among them were the accusations of showman-like sleight of hand and occultism. In the print Mesmer stands atop a balloon inflated by several of his followers, including a kneeling figure dressed in clerical robes. He holds a thurible, a metal cage containing burning incense suspended from chains, from which a vast cloud of smoke emerges. It is an allusion both to the spiritualist subtext of Mesmer’s healing practice and to the charge that Mesmer used stage tricks to conceal its true operations. The glass harmonica beneath the table and the mask by Mesmer’s legs similarly imply that his practice is one of theatrical illusionism rather than legitimate science. The physician is being crowned with a laurel wreath by a jester suspended from a balloon while rays emerge from his fingertip and wand, ultimately landing on a seated woman on the left and a gentleman on the right.

Figure 1.2 Anon. [Mesmer Magnetizing a Patient], 1784, engraving.

The popularity of animal magnetism became a source of tension within the French court, where it was embraced by several popular figures yet denounced by senior members of the scientific establishment. In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed a commission to investigate it. The surrounding controversy was of such a pitch that the inquiry was closely followed in the international press. Benjamin Franklin led a group of scientists including the acclaimed chemist Antoine Lavoisier and the doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The latter was subsequently credited with the invention of the guillotine, the device that would execute his former colleague Lavoisier almost exactly a decade later. Mesmer objected to the inquiry, which was instead conducted with his protégé d’Eslon.9 Members of the committee observed and participated in sessions of magnetic treatment to determine its efficacy. (They can be seen in the 1784 print to the left of the table, holding their eyeglasses up to nothing in particular and appearing oblivious to many of the activities going on around them.) Franklin’s committee conducted additional experiments designed to verify the presence of magnetism in inanimate bodies, instructing d’Eslon to magnetize an apricot tree and several glasses of water. When presented with these objects, Mesmer’s experienced supporters were unable to distinguish those that had been magnetized from those that had not, appearing to have therapeutic convulsions when stimulated with objects that did not, in fact, lay claim to any mesmeric properties. The commission concluded that Mesmer’s fluid did not exist and that the physical sensations experienced by his followers were solely the result of their imagination. Their inquiry had merely proven, in their words, “the efficacy of the imagination, and the impotence of the magnetism.”10 By 1785, mesmerism had fallen into disrepute. Mesmer largely withdrew from public life, leaving Paris to travel through Switzerland and Austria. He returned to Paris for three years after the Revolution, retiring shortly thereafter.

What was it about Mesmer’s original system that was able to generate widespread acceptance and refutation among the broader public as well as within the most elite academic and social circles? A lack of explicit causality and consensus. The royal commission’s ruling seemed straightforward enough: none of the effects displayed or experienced by practitioners of mesmerism could be exclusively, causally attributed to animal magnetism. Nor could any scientific experiments verify its existence. Yet members of the highest and lowest echelons of European society had nonetheless insisted upon its legitimacy throughout the 1770s and early 1780s. The academician Jean-Sylvain Bailly lamented this fact in his 1784 report on animal magnetism, describing the lack of consensus among “enlightened people” as “a scandal.”11 Even the royal commission’s supposedly definitive public condemnation of animal magnetism was accompanied by a dissenting opinion authored by one of the committee members: Antoine Laurent de Jussieu wrote that the existence of animal magnetism could not be ruled out! After the report was commissioned, both scientists and laypeople alike faced the same problem that they did before. Some continued to claim to experience mesmerism’s healing effects, and others did not; and as de Jussieu’s dissent pointed out, failing to prove that something exists is not tantamount to proving its nonexistence. Supporters of de Loutherbourg would, years later, invoke the same scientific criteria used by the commission to argue in support of mesmerism. Direct experience was not, it would seem, giving people unambiguous access to scientific knowledge. Something appeared to be faltering or shifting in the mechanisms by which people determined and agreed upon “real truth” – something more pervasive, and something that, in the end, had as much to do with de Loutherbourg as it did with Anton Mesmer.

Landscapes and Stage Tricks

Like Mesmer, de Loutherbourg spent much of his life on the margins of public credibility. Unlike Mesmer, he seemed fairly content to remain there. The Alsatian-born artist cultivated a studied ambiguity about the precise details of his life, some of which remain unknown to this day.12 Born in Strasbourg in October 1740, de Loutherbourg relocated to Paris in 1755 to train as an artist. There he was affiliated with Carl Vanloo and was also a student of François Joseph Casanova, younger brother to the famed lothario Giacomo Casanova. De Loutherbourg’s early career in Paris was exceptionally successful. The young artist made his public debut at the Salon of 1763, where his landscapes earned rapturous praise from Denis Diderot. Within a few years, de Loutherbourg was one of the most prominent landscape painters in Paris and the youngest academician elected to the French Académie royale. As early as the 1760s, de Loutherbourg’s success was seamed with scandal. There was speculation dating back to his time in Casanova’s workshop that de Loutherbourg was rather too good at imitating the work of others. This charge gained momentum when Diderot himself suggested that de Loutherbourg had copied from Claude-Joseph Vernet in some of his landscapes.13 However, a far greater scandal soon compelled him to leave France altogether. A retired naval captain brought a suit against de Loutherbourg alleging that the artist had used his wife’s seductive powers to defraud the officer of a significant sum of money. Support from his fellow academicians was tepid and de Loutherbourg, unable to shake the mounting accusations, set off for London in the fall of 1771 leaving behind his first wife and children.

De Loutherbourg’s initial success in London was achieved not as a landscape painter but as a master of stage tricks. Shortly after his arrival, the artist was introduced to David Garrick, the famous actor and director of Drury Lane, one of London’s most popular theaters. Although de Loutherbourg soon began exhibiting at the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, he remained relatively isolated within the Academy’s network of sociability and was not elected as an academician until 1781. His early fame resulted, instead, from the set designs and standalone showpieces de Loutherbourg created for Drury Lane throughout the 1770s. His masterfully illusionistic receding stage flats and especially his dramatic, changing luminous effects transformed British theater and ultimately introduced a new genre of technologically driven spectacle to London.14 Before de Loutherbourg, one 1779 review recalled, “stage tricks were never played off with such success … Under his direction we have seen fiery chariots, clouds, and burning gulfs, which have made the hairs of the spectator stand on end; and every other deception has been practiced with equal good fortune.”15 (Note, here, the coupling of an intense physical response in the spectator with theatrical “deception,” a point to which I will return.)

In 1781, de Loutherbourg stopped regularly working for Drury Lane and unveiled a spectacle for which he has since become famous: the Eidophusikon.16 In a theater based in his Leicester Square residence, spectators would sit in a darkened room in front of a large window-like opening, within which painted scenes would appear to move and change. Hidden from view, a series of mechanisms created elaborate sound effects and manipulated the display’s lighting through the layers of translucent fabric, presenting the audience with gripping illusions that seemed both animate and imposing. So successful were his illusions that William Wordsworth, writing of the Eidophusikon and other related attractions in book 7 of The Prelude, described it as “a mirror” to natural phenomena.17 Although it continued afterwards under a different proprietor, de Loutherbourg only produced three seasons of the Eidophusikon: in 1781, 1782, and 1783. For this brief time it was one of London’s most fashionable and celebrated attractions and drew the admiration of fellow artists such as Thomas Gainsborough.

De Loutherbourg’s proximity to the theater proved problematic for his career as an academic painter. From the beginning of his time in London, de Loutherbourg was known as a master of “stage tricks.” It was a reputation hardly compatible with the model artist described by Reynolds, whose works were supposed to shine with moral significance, intellectual rigor, and timeless ideals – especially at a moment when the Summer Exhibition was trying to distinguish itself from less prestigious forms of entertainment like those on offer at Drury Lane.18 Yet even Reynolds was well acquainted with the attractions of the theater and was known to draw upon it within his portraits.19 Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned 1779 review that praised de Loutherbourg’s dramatic set designs lamented the presence of “extravagance” and “exaggeration” in his academic paintings. The implication was that de Loutherbourg employed tricks of illusionism at the expense of an honest representation of nature. The artist’s professional credibility was hardly improved by his social circle in London, which included the esoteric artists Richard and Maria Cosway, the millennialist engraver William Sharp, the wealthy eccentric and novelist William Beckford, and Lord George Gordon, the last of whom was best known for instigating riots in 1780 that destroyed more property in London over three days than an entire decade of revolution inflicted on Paris. De Loutherbourg’s other friends included radical Freemasons, occultists, and avid subscribers to the city’s less orthodox attractions.

Like Mesmer, de Loutherbourg had emigrated to a different country to flee official censure and to rebuild his reputation; and, like Mesmer, his efforts to gain institutional credibility were repeatedly thwarted by his association with stagecraft. However, whereas de Loutherbourg’s extensive work in the theater was unusual for a prominent academic artist, Mesmer’s appeals to showmanship were a typical part of the public dissemination of popular science. Spectacular demonstrations – used in serious instruction as well as fairground entertainment – were among the primary means by which scientific phenomena were explicated.20 They were also a source of fear and distrust; some worried that they appealed too much to the senses or activated people’s baser desires for amusement rather than their powers of reasoning. In other words, this charge of showmanship against Mesmer was part of a conflict that resided within rather than outside of Enlightenment scientific practices. His case suggests that this conflict was reaching a crisis point in the 1780s – that if it was acceptable for an artist to be associated with “stage tricks,” it was increasingly antithetical to scientific credibility.21 Mesmer’s mesmerism and de Loutherbourg’s landscape paintings both straddled this widening fault line. In each case, the practitioner was suspected of acts of concealment and presentation whose truth-value was doubted; the way things appeared could not be trusted to accurately convey the way things actually were.

Secret Arts

How did de Loutherbourg, an established showman and artist, come to practice this strange and discredited branch of medicine? The artist enrolled in a course on mesmerism in the mid-1780s, a period that saw a surge in heterodox activity in London.22 The heady mix of mysticism, occultism, alchemy, and pseudo-scientific activities in circulation in late eighteenth-century London meant that, as Iain McCalman writes, “British mesmerism had simply to compete alongside other forms of so-called quackery in a pluralistic medical marketplace where borderlines between orthodox and heterodox practices were notoriously blurred.”23 De Loutherbourg and the artists John Flaxman and William Sharp were also among the founders of the London Theosophical Society, which studied the writings of the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg’s emphasis on a spiritual life defined by one’s receptiveness to God’s “divine flux” and on the necessity for spiritual equilibrium shared a certain conceptual sympathy with the mesmeric teachings that were just beginning to reach Britain.24

The version of mesmerism that reached Britain in the mid-1780s was noticeably different from the system Mesmer had put forward, and it never attained the degree of popularity it enjoyed in France. The Societies of Harmony that began disseminating his teachings early in the decade had effectively decentralized the practice, enabling powerful provincial societies to propagate teachings that Mesmer himself rejected. The most influential of these was in Strasbourg, de Loutherbourg’s birthplace, where the Chastenet de Puységur brothers introduced “mesmeric somnambulism.” The term “somnambulism” – literally, sleepwalking – describes a trancelike state in which waking consciousness is suspended but the ability to speak and act remains intact.25 In this state, patients were said to be able to diagnose their own illnesses and could prescribe the appropriate treatment. (One of its foremost advocates in the German-speaking world was the widely known physiognomist and minister Johann Caspar Lavater, who famously treated his wife’s chronic illness with a combination of electricity, mesmeric somnambulism, and more conventional therapies.)26 Whereas Mesmer dedicated his career to winning institutional approval, this second generation of mesmerists operated more firmly and willfully outside of the parameters of scientific and institutional credibility. His followers made increasingly baroque claims for the powers of mesmeric somnambulism, which included clairvoyance, telepathy, and extrasensory perception. Correspondingly, the medical applications of mesmerism grew secondary to other pursuits: “to decipher hieroglyphics, manipulate magic numbers, communicate with spirits, and listen to speeches.”27 The Puységurs’ hybrid of mesmerism and spiritualism spread throughout Europe and quickly eclipsed Mesmer’s earlier version; it was this variant on which subsequent nineteenth-century revivals would later be based and that permanently altered mesmerism’s legacy by its adjacency to occultism and legerdemain.28

The most prominent London-based advocate of mesmerism was the Irish-born John Benoît de Mainauduc, who had studied medicine under William Hunter (the first Professor of Anatomy for the Royal Academy) and then moved to Paris, where he had been a pupil of Mesmer’s protégé Charles d’Eslon. De Loutherbourg and his friends Richard and Maria Cosway numbered among Mainauduc’s early students.29 I classify de Loutherbourg’s healing practice as “animal magnetism” in large part because that is the term the artist’s contemporaries most frequently used to describe it, although it is important to note that it integrated elements of spiritualism Mesmer would have vehemently disavowed.30 For de Loutherbourg, mesmerism and mysticism shared many conceptual similarities; alchemical notions of material transformation and Swedenborgian “divine influx” – both of which de Loutherbourg already had a demonstrated interest in – resonated with mesmerism’s claims to exert an immaterial, imperceptible power over material bodies. The adjacency of animal magnetism and occultism was quite literally embodied, for de Loutherbourg, in the figure of Count Cagliostro, a famed mystic and grifter.31

By the time he befriended de Loutherbourg in London, Cagliostro had already been tried and acquitted in the Diamond Necklace Affair; he had drawn the ire of the notorious lothario Giacomo Casanova (the older brother of de Loutherbourg’s former teacher, François Joseph Casanova), the Russian empress Catherine the Great, and the queen of France Marie Antoinette; and he would later antagonize the German poet Johann von Goethe as well as the Catholic pope, Pius Sextus. Cagliostro likewise quarreled with the Swiss minister and amateur healer Lavater (intimate friend of and collaborator with Henry Fuseli), although he was admired by the French artist Girodet and his mentor Trioson. Upon Cagliostro’s arrival in London in the late 1780s, the mystic began promoting his “divine arts,” a mysterious combination of fortune-telling, alchemy, numerology, necromancy, and animal magnetism. He was also in the process of establishing a new form of Freemasonry, which he called the Egyptian Rite. (In the early 1790s, Cagliostro would initiate a handful of unnamed young Parisian artists in Rome into the Egyptian Rite; among them may have numbered the young Girodet, himself a devoted Mason who had recently arrived in the city on a Prix de Rome.)32 De Loutherbourg was a long-standing Mason with a radical bent, and the two men became close friends.

The artist was increasingly devoted to Cagliostro’s “secret arts,” first hosting the mystic in his Hammersmith home when Cagliostro was seeking refuge from French and English creditors.33 Cagliostro fled London in the spring of 1787 and was joined by de Loutherbourg and the artist’s second wife several weeks later in Biel. The painter laid down a considerable sum in order to be initiated into Cagliostro’s mystical practices. After several months, however, Cagliostro was no closer to revealing his “secret arts” to de Loutherbourg, who eventually threatened legal action and demanded that his money be returned. Early in 1788, the artist and his wife made their way back to England. Publicizing his return, the Whitehall Evening Post mocked de Loutherbourg’s “credulity in listening to the plausible stories [Cagliostro] had told him about his knowledge in the transmutation of metals” and added that “Cagliostro is certainly an adept in the art of transmutation, for he knows how to transfer at least into his own pocket the golden purses of his friends.”34 De Loutherbourg, the avowed master of “stage tricks,” had himself been tricked.

The Elements, Unbounded

During his disastrous sojourn in Switzerland with Cagliostro, de Loutherbourg produced a landscape painting animated by some of the very issues that plagued mesmerism. First, its troubling proximity to showmanship, occultism, and charlatanry. Second, its ability to thrive despite a lack of institutional credibility. Third, and perhaps most revealing of all, its portrayal of the kind of perceptual ambiguities that lay at the heart of animal magnetism’s scientific precarity – the painting’s evocation of effects and forces that could not be readily disambiguated. A year earlier, de Loutherbourg had exhibited View of Snowdon, from Llan Berris Lake (c.1787, Strasbourg Musée des Beaux-Arts), a relatively restrained composition yet one that still delivered greater dramatic effects than could be seen in the work of fellow exhibitors at the Royal Academy such as William Hodges (c.1790, Landscape with Fishermen on a Lake, Yale Center for British Art). Like Hodges, de Loutherbourg observed the compositional conventions of landscape painting, including a backlit rocky outcropping in the foreground, a body of water in the lowest register of the painting, paler distant mountains, and vaporous light-flecked clouds. De Loutherbourg’s clouds, matched only by Gainsborough and Wright of Derby in their luminous variety and meteorological specificity, creep toward the viewer and obscure bits of the distant mountain. Such details, along with the rhythmic alternation of receding outcroppings – which resemble, in no small measure, stage flats – led one critic to describe the painting as “in itself an Exhibition. The effect is almost miraculous. The eye is carried from cliff to cliff, in a deceptive and awful gradation to the summit of that prodigious mountain.”35 There was a critical undertone to such praise, which attributed it with flashy showmanship rather than the morally elevated restraint espoused by academicians (in theory, if not always in practice).36 De Loutherbourg’s recourse to the “extrinsic help of illumination of obscurity” produced, in the words of another review, “an illusive charm, a deception that is altogether necromantic.” The artist, elsewhere, was said to have “a most bewitching pencil.”37

The language of occultism (“necromantic,” “bewitching”) was commonplace in reviews of his work. “Whatever the master throws his pencil,” wrote the Morning Post, “we are enchanted with its magic.”38 In this context, “magic” doubled as an allusion to the occult and to a high degree of pictorial illusionism, the latter also invoked with regard to de Loutherbourg’s contemporaries such as Fuseli and Gainsborough.39 The Morning Chronicle, describing his paintings as “dangerous,” lamented that they “transport the common observer out of his judgment, and by the magic of their execution, divest at first even the studious artist of his discernment.”40 Reviews such as this underscored a certain congruity, recognized by the artist’s contemporaries, between painterly illusionism, stage craft, and occultism that had to do, firstly, with deceptive appearances and, secondly, with the power to manipulate its audience. In the case of de Loutherbourg, however, for whom it was not exclusively metaphorical, the language had real bite. More malicious forms of perceptual indeterminacy, it seems, were at work.

De Loutherbourg exhibited The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (Figure 1.3) upon his return from Switzerland. A painting unlike any he had ever done before, it was meant as a rejoinder to critics who often accused him of basing his landscapes on inventions of fancy and imagination rather than the direct study of nature. In the Journal de Paris, for example, his landscape in the 1779 Salon was said to be the flawed result of a “system not based in truth.”41 The literary-minded cleric Joseph Holden Pott was one of many to describe his works as “visionary, without a trait of nature.”42 It was commonly said that de Loutherbourg “never condescends to draw from Nature.”43 The Falls of the Rhine was pointedly different. Mainstream reviews took note of the fact that the painting arrived at the Summer Exhibition conspicuously late.44 The painting’s lateness, excused on the grounds that it had been shipped directly from Switzerland, bolstered de Loutherbourg’s claims to have painted the landscape based on the firsthand observation of nature.

Figure 1.3 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, 1788, oil on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1788, then, de Loutherbourg was enduring publicly scrutiny about more than one kind of deception. First, his paintings were not considered “true” likenesses, a point conceded even in favorable reviews of his landscapes. Second, he had recently returned from Switzerland where, it was widely reported, he had been defrauded by Cagliostro. De Loutherbourg’s own ability to parse what was real, reliable, and credible from mere trickery had faltered in a most spectacular and humiliating manner. The Falls of the Rhine was a bid for credibility on both fronts. Set aside were the stage tricks. In place of the infernal lighting and elegantly groomed cows that populated much of his oeuvre, this was an earnest landscape whose authenticity ought to be unquestionable: the painting had to be a true likeness; after all, it arrived straight from the source. As such, it appealed to the evidentiary authority of direct observation, which remained a cornerstone of scientific knowledge production. Yet the painting itself, we will see, did little to convince its viewers of the scene’s basis in factual reality. Instead, it emphasized pictorial effects and natural phenomena that tested the limits of human perception, proving difficult to apprehend through empirical means.

In the painting’s right foreground, a finely attired couple prepares to visit the falls in a small boat, around which rustically styled locals gather. They are shielded from the falls by a rocky outcropping that cordons off human activity and its accessories (structures, tools) from the rest of the landscape and thus the social world from the natural. Within its perimeter and along its outer most boundary, there are barrels to move, laundry to dry, information to exchange. The diminutive scale of the human figures, despite their placement in the foremost spatial register of the painting, signals the vastness of the falls in the absence of conventional markers of depth and scale. In selecting the falls for his subject, de Loutherbourg was playing to one of his strengths: his reputed mastery of “the elements.” Falls were a favored theme of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael, whose technique of combining long pigmented strokes and brief staccato passages of white impasto was taken up by de Loutherbourg in the 1760s and 1770s. The artist had a long-standing interest in meteorological effects, especially storms, and shared with his former teacher Casanova a preference for filling the backgrounds of his more sedate landscapes with elaborate cloud formations. “As an elemental painter,” wrote the Morning Post, “Mr. Loutherbourg has not an equal.”45 Even after his death, this reputation persisted. A catalogue from Peter Coxe’s postmortem sale of the artist’s work reads, “light and darkness; the elements of earth, air, fire and water, over these […] he held imitative sway.”46 The term “elements” was aptly chosen, for it could refer to quite literal features of landscape painting while also evoking abstract, foundational components of the natural world – matter, its building blocks, and its various states and transformations.

The double valence of “the elements” had already been activated by de Loutherbourg’s earlier treatments of water features, but de Loutherbourg’s “elements” in The Falls of the Rhine were without precedent. The waterfalls seen in his early landscapes cascade with a crisp, directed clarity, casting an ambient pallor on the surrounding rocks whose bulky solidity dominates the composition. Whereas in The Falls, behind the clearly delineated, closed forms of the foreground, the viewer encounters an intricately varied tonal expanse lacking both internal and external bounded contours. From under a thin and uneven veil of gray, patchy greens and browns evoke rocky and vegetal masses whose precise contours remain undisclosed. Varied shading and tonal transitions hint at sudden drops, deep recesses, and bouldered ledges in the topography of the falls, the features of which are only partially glimpsed before they blend back into a bleached crush of mist and water. Pictorial distinctions between discrete forms and spatial registers are suspended. Likewise, elemental states – water, mist, and cloud – represented within the falls appear continuous. The boundary between water and earth is softened and blurred: to the right and left of the falls, whites and greens seamlessly merge in a blurry gradient of mist and rock. The translucent layers of gray that surround the base of the cliff on the right unhinge the distinction between solid materiality and vaporous ether – an opposition de Loutherbourg would subsequently foreground in Philosopher in a Moonlit Courtyard. (J. M. W. Turner, who was known to have lingered around de Loutherbourg’s studio, would preserve this distinction when painting the same falls several years later in Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, 1805–1806.) A similar operation takes place on the level of pigment: chromatic deposits are thickly encrusted in passages that appear to depict water and become thin and translucent where they evoke a rocky substrate. In other words, pigment is the least materially dense precisely where it depicts “actual” material density.

A Fluid Too Subtle

De Loutherbourg’s treatment of The Falls evokes a world hospitable to the operations claimed for animal magnetism, a world whose material and immaterial forces interpenetrate one another. Even more pointedly, several of the landscape’s natural features elude direct observation. In this regard, the painting replicates some of the most problematic aspects of mesmerism. Firstly, animal magnetism was said to penetrate and transform even the densest materials – it was predicated on a model of the physical world that is not as solid or discrete as it may appear. Secondly, Mesmer’s magnetic fluid evaded empirical observation. “It is too subtle to be subjected to […] observation,” Franklin’s 1784 report complained.47 “It is not, like the electrical fluid, luminous and visible … it has neither taste nor smell; its process is silent, and it surrounds you or penetrates your frame, without your being informed of its presence by the sense of touch.”48 Put simply, although it claimed to permeate the physical world animal magnetism couldn’t be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. Here was an impasse: How could an observation-based, empirical science verify the existence of something that couldn’t be observed, that lay beyond man’s perceptual capacities and likewise beyond the measure of any instrument? Conversely, how else could one account for all the shrieking, fainting, convulsing, and catatonic patients? On the one hand, it revealed a disparity between what people claimed to experience and what could be conclusively known. Nullius in verba, read the motto of the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660: “take nobody’s word for it.” This was shorthand for the maxim that proper science must be based not on received authority but on experimentally verifiable fact. Mesmerism presented a force that seemed to have powerful effects on the body but that could not be directly sensed by that body. Consequently, animal magnetism couldn’t be subjected to experimental verification.

The Falls thus dramatized the notion of a natural world that could be pervaded by an imperceptible substance and the attending problem of the limitations of man’s perceptual powers to apprehend that substance. As we know, de Loutherbourg made both spoken and unspoken claims to have based the painting on the direct study of nature. Yet the result was a world in which water, mist, and cloud are dispersed across the canvas, transitioning freely into one another and unimpeded by the borders of physical materiality. This is more than an evocation of formal obscurity according to conventions of the sublime. The painting insists upon permeable boundaries between the material and immaterial, and it puts the viewer in the position of being unable to parse one from the other with any certainty. The artist’s own perceptual prowess was itself called into question by critics. St James’s Chronicle remarked: “We are glad to hear he has gone to paint water from nature; as he seemed to us never to have seen it with the eye of an artist. In this picture, the radical defect either of his eye or his judgment is remarkable.”49 “Nor,” it continued, “does any part of the water-fall predominate; an effect impossible in nature.” The painter’s apparent failure to create a hierarchy of detail, to distinguish significant from insignificant pictorial elements, was yet another aspect of the painting that suppressed the distinctions by which viewers could make sense of the world it purported to represent. In The Falls of the Rhine, we encounter the dissolution of bounded forms and the suspension of pictorial order.

Having been humiliatingly swindled by Cagliostro, de Loutherbourg used The Falls to stage a bid for public credibility, underwritten by the direct study and faithful transcription of nature. Yet he also introduced profound pictorial indeterminacy, in which the operations previously consigned to distant clouds – powers of apparition and disappearance, chromatic expanses that escape the boundaries of shape, and the traversal of formal registers – become the compositional focal point. In doing so, de Loutherbourg painted a scene in which the viewer pushes up against the limits of their perceptual capacity to make sense of the world; or, more troubling still, a scene in which the world itself is physically indeterminate. It served as an allegory for the artist’s ongoing and public struggle to draw easy and confident distinctions between illusion and reality, between mere trickery and actual truth; and it landed squarely on a challenge both proponents and skeptics of animal magnetism struggled with: direct observation, it would seem, does not always give one access to truth.

The Powers of de Loutherbourg

The following spring, de Loutherbourg committed himself quite emphatically to a conception of the natural world penetrated and acted upon by imperceptible forces. The artist ceased painting and opened a free healing clinic in his Hammersmith residence where, assisted by his second wife, he employed an unspecified combination of mesmerism, faith healing, somnambulism, and chemistry. The Morning Post described the undertaking as “an absurd career of medical Quixotism … The powers of Loutherbourgh[sic] are so miraculous, that if report is to be trusted, he can restore lost limbs [and] give sight to those eyes which have long since vanished from their orbits.”50 One of his contemporaries took a more sanguine view, describing de Loutherbourg as one of “the most famous practitioners and most disinterested” of animal magnetism.51 The artist quickly gained popularity among the urban poor and especially the vagabonds who tended to congregate in Hammersmith, where it is estimated that he treated between two thousand and three thousand people.52 In an effort to manage the crowds, de Loutherbourg kept a sign outside his home announcing that new patients, to whom free tickets for admission were distributed, would only be seen on Thursdays. Those who did not receive tickets were apparently able to purchase them on the black market for up to five guineas.53 The Morning Post reported that “the crowd of people is so great who visit Hammersmith on Loutherbourgh’s public day, Thursday, that it appears as if all the country was rising, and the aid of the Magistrate has been actually required to prevent mischief.”54

The Morning Post was not the only one to point out the political subtext of de Loutherbourg’s clinic. William Dent’s 1789 satirical print Billy’s Gouty Visit (Figure 1.4) took up a similar thread, depicting William Pitt, on the left, in search of treatment for “the Fumes of discontent.” Standing in the center of the room attired in purple coat reminiscent of Mesmer’s well-known preference for dressing in lilac, de Loutherbourg replies, “I can Cure my poor Patients vidout trouble or expense – but to make de Man of you by Cot I could as soon animate de Canvas.” Intriguingly, the text identifies a certain correlation between painterly illusionism and magnetic healing and points to a limit-case in each that lies beyond de Loutherbourg’s powers. To the doctor’s right, a pile of gold coins concealed under the table above the term “magnetism” may allude to the self-interested, pecuniary motives of popular practitioners like Mainauduc. Behind the table, a group of “incurable curables” await treatment; each figure seems to be missing one or more body parts. The joke here lies in the obviously irreversible nature of their ailments, coupled with the suggestion that in order to seek de Loutherbourg’s treatment one would have to have “lost one’s head.” Dent’s satirical print sounded several familiar notes, including the charge of quackery, overstated claims about animal magnetism’s healing powers, and the particularly French frippery of its practitioner.

Figure 1.4 William Dent, Billy’s Gouty Visit, or a Peep at Hammersmith, 1789, etching. British Museum.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

On a practical level, de Loutherbourg’s healing clinic, like those of Mesmer, flew in the face of social and institutional hierarchies that were coming under increasing pressure in the final decades of the century.55 Mesmer’s teachings were able to gain a considerable foothold through a network of schools that resembled the Masonic lodges and other deist societies then flourishing in London and Paris. Merely by paying a subscription fee, individuals were able to completely sidestep the official mechanisms by which traditional doctors were trained, evaluated, and accredited. There was a populist strain in Mesmer’s Paris clinic, too. “The house of M. Mesmer,” one historical source notes, “reunites all classes; one sees there knights, abbots, marquises, prostitutes, soldiers, […] midwives, [and] intellectuals.”56 The physical proximity of such groups was especially troubling because mesmeric treatment relied upon the transmission and amplification of animal magnetism among patients. Skeptics suggested that patients were unduly “influenced” by one another, that they were inclined to imagine they were magnetized when surrounded by other enthusiasts. In warning of this, the 1784 report issued by Franklin’s commission struck a prescient note: “The same cause is deeply governed in rebellions; the multitude are governed by the imagination; the individuals in numerous assembly are more subjected to their senses, and less capable of submitting to the dictates of reason.”57 Whether one believed them to be united by magnetic fluid or by the imagination, what remained beyond doubt what that the social classes gathered in Mesmer’s clinic were participating in unprecedented somatic and psychic exchanges.

De Loutherbourg was widely mocked in the press and derided as a “quack” doctor.58 The news was met with skepticism in Paris, too. “One of the new French papers,” read the Public Advertiser, “speaking of the Charlatan Loutherbourg, says, that his quackeries have completely deluded the English nation.”59 There was something clearly ridiculous about an eccentric painter claiming to possess healing powers embodied in his person – despite the fact that such a claim had been relatively credible in France when made by Mesmer a decade earlier. Yet this negative response was not as unanimous as one might expect. De Loutherbourg’s followers were savvy enough to appeal to the scientific authority of direct observation in support of his cause. The author of the 1789 pamphlet A List of a Few Cures Performed by Mr. and Mrs. De Loutherbourg, Mary Pratt, described herself as an “eye witness” and wrote that she felt obligated to “bear witness to those truths I am going to relate, from a conviction that facts are stubborn things.”60 The readiness with which someone like Pratt was able to coopt the language of scientific objectivity speaks to both the mainstream legibility and the problematic fluidity of an appeal to direct observation in shoring up empirical truths. Its plausibility among some quarters is evident not only from the vast numbers of de Loutherbourg’s patients and the extensive coverage he received in the press; it was sufficiently contested to merit public debate. The Coachmakers Hall, a prominent debate venue, hosted an event so popular it was repeated a second time. “A great number of persons having declared that they have been restored to health by this extraordinary character, and that they are ready to attest the same,” served as the impetus.61 For a mere six pennies, one could attend a debate on the question, “Is it consistent with reason or religion to believe that Mr. Loutherbourg has performed any cure by a Divine Power, without an medical application?”62 He also received support from the Diary or Woodfall’s Register, which lamented the “daily abuse” to which de Loutherbourg was subjected. “It is somewhat unfair,” they argued, “to attack the science of Animal Magnetism, without having investigated into its truth.”63

The events that ultimately destroyed the clinic were characterized as a kind of frenzied eruption of popular violence. Historical documents describing the clinic and its downfall are, as was often the case with mesmerism, typically inconclusive – some laudatory and others critical, with little consensus to be found. Whether the result of unrestrained enthusiasm or hostility, in July 1789 a crowd broke into his clinic and left it in a ruinous state. Afterward, de Loutherbourg abandoned his self-appointed role as a public healer, although he continued to practice some form of unconventional healing in secret for well over a decade.64 When de Loutherbourg resumed painting a few months later, he did so under the shadow of scandal. After the events of 1789, de Loutherbourg’s reputation was at its nadir. As his reputation was gradually rehabilitated, though, it retained its affiliation with animal magnetism.

De Loutherbourg’s contemporaries were quick to understand his mesmeric and painterly practices as analogues, of a sort. Take the following three examples: “Loutherbourg, thanks to directing providence, is again turning his magnetism where it ought to be, to the pencil; and where he alone can justly lead the passion captive!”65 “Loutherbourg has given up his magnetising absurdity for a brand of the Arts in which he excels. The magical touches of his pencil will be more service to society, than all the magnetic infection he has made on his fair patients!”66 And, “M. Loutherbourg ceases magnetising his patients, but in some new landscapes will soon magnetise the public by the charms of his colours, and the attraction of his pencil.”67 I take this language to be more than coincidental. At a moment in British history when new forms of public art exhibitions were coming to play an increasingly dominant role in the cultural landscape – when more people than ever before were gathering to look at, read about, and buy contemporary art – a very particular relationship between the viewer and the work of art was being articulated, one that drew upon the language and concepts of mesmerism. By then, mesmerism had come to describe a widely discredited practice in which patients are acted on by mere feats of illusionism but might nonetheless exhibit or directly experience dramatic physical effects. It defined de Loutherbourg’s viewer as one acted upon by a seemingly powerful object and one whose perceptual experience thereof could not be trusted to correspond to an underlying truth or to facilitate one’s acquisition of knowledge.

Invisible Enemies

In the years that followed, de Loutherbourg’s artworks envisioned a world in disarray and, correspondingly, a viewer who encounters dramatic illusionistic effects rather than evidentiary data. He embedded these effects, moreover, within a genre in which perceptual clarity often took on urgent moral and intellectual value: history painting. De Loutherbourg’s professional turn to history painting coincided with his decisive retreat from many of the pictorial features on which that genre relied. These included the legible arrangement of forms, the reference to classical precedents, compositional emphasis on decisive human protagonists, the use of articulate gestures and expressive features to convey human emotion, and the coupling of informational details with formal effects that emphasize the most important aspects of the narrative. When de Loutherbourg debuted Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Figure 1.5) in 1796, it was still possible to identify a relatively stable set of conventions through which history painting functioned as a machine for moral, historical, and affective truth. However, it was also newly possible for viewers of de Loutherbourg’s paintings to characterize themselves as – and, to an extent, understood themselves to be – the metaphorical victims of “animal magnetism.” His painting presented two interrelated problems: an object that misrepresents or conceals its true operations and a viewer whose experience does not accurately reflect those operations.

Figure 1.5 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588, 1796, oil on canvas.

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Several for-profit ventures at the time were commissioning prominent artists in Britain to paint scenes from literary and historical texts that could be exhibited and sold as prints, including Robert Bowyer’s Historic Gallery, Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, and Macklin’s Gallery of Poets. De Loutherbourg’s Defeat of the Spanish Armada had been commissioned by Bowyer for a new illustrated edition of David Hume’s The History of England. As an illustration of a naval battle, the painting was expected to convey very specific kinds of information: which boats engaged which, under whose command, and with what outcome; the make and rigging of each ship and their positions relative to each other, to land formations, and to the wind; changing meteorological conditions; the scale of each fleet and the weapons used; and finally, the splendor and drama of an event in which human agency is sublimated into vast, slow-moving, rather featureless vessels – within a single cohesive image.68 By the late eighteenth century, such information was typically consolidated, freeing up space on the canvas for more detailed individual exchanges that could stand in for a whole series of unseen engagements, and shown from a point of view much closer to the waterline.69 Although some tension between historical fact and pictorial drama was endemic to the genre of marine battle painting, its presentation of certain kinds of information remained one of its defining features into the early nineteenth century – so important, in fact, that Eleanor Hughes, writing about the interplay of “factual correctness” and “fiction,” describes “reportage” as the genre’s primary historical function.70

In Defeat of the Spanish Armada, de Loutherbourg’s tendency to cluster pictorial detail in the foreground and suppress it in the background was taken to new extremes. Gone was the horizon line that had been so important, both conceptually and technically, for seascapes. Gone, too, was the warship as heroic actor and dominant compositional element. Instead, ships flicker in and out of view. On the right, the prow of an English ship enters the fray, its taut sails swelling with wind. On the left, the foreshortened bow of a single Spanish warship juts out while the rest of the Armada is reduced to a chimera of slackened sails and shivering lines of rigging. Thickly applied whites, yellows, and reds engulf the Spanish ships. Unmanned English fire ships laden with explosives, which were sent towards the Armada and abandoned at the last moment by a skeleton crew, have set the fleet ablaze. The Ark Royal, the flagship of the English fleet and the only warship shown in its entirety, lies dim and inconspicuous in the distant midground. The ship is dwarfed by the scale and pictorial activity of the left foreground in which hand-to-hand combat takes place between anonymous soldiers on modest English galleys.

One of the challenges confronting de Loutherbourg was the decisive historical role played by the wind, which the English fleet maintained control over to great advantage. The night before the engagement they gained what is known as the “weather gage,” a strategically favorable position upwind of the Armada. The Spanish fleet, constrained by maneuvering downwind, took tacks that forced their ships to heel (that is, lean to one side), thus exposing larger and more vulnerable parts of their hulls to English canon fire. It was a battle, in other words, in which the most instrumental force was invisible and elemental. Once again, de Loutherbourg sought recourse in boundless, formless pictorial expanses to manage the disjunction of invisible forces and visible effects. Rather than clouds, in Defeat of the Spanish Armada it is color itself that moves effortlessly across fixed boundaries and that, by turns, reveals and distorts. Tonal wedges encircle the canvas: on the left scarlet and then bright orange, above it clouds of pewter dissipating into a small, bright patch of sky, and on the right flax-hued sails and breaking water, below which lies the varied, light-flecked green of an uneasy sea. The color-saturated segments curl clockwise as if part of a rotating mechanism or a child’s painted whirligig – sails, shadows, clouds, and a crush of figures all spinning along, a maelstrom of light and color. The compressed, frenzied combat taking place in the left foreground, the ostensible focal point of dramatic narrative activity, is blanketed by an infernal glow cast from flames among the Spanish fleet. The color overtakes every surface – flesh, wood, fabric, and metal – and remakes them all as agents of fire. It permeates the left foreground, reflecting off Spanish and English soldiers alike and frustrating the viewer’s attempts to make ready distinctions between them. The result is a triumph of immaterial forces rather than human agents, of forces that cannot themselves be apprehended but can only be perceived in the effects they have on material bodies.

Giving vast portions of the canvas over to “the elements,” although still a novel pictorial strategy, had its place in landscape painting; but to deploy it in a painting of a historic English victory and to thereby efface the visual presence of England’s greatest military asset, its navy, was something else entirely. In the late 1790s, Britain was struggling under the financial strain of ongoing war with France and was forced to institute Impressment, a system of compulsory military service, to man the Royal Navy. By 1796, the First Coalition, an alliance of European monarchies fighting France, was weakening and would soon collapse. French troops were advancing on Germany and Italy and recent British efforts to support royalist forces in the Vendée had unequivocally failed. The country was gradually mobilizing for what historians have called Europe’s first “total war,” a conflict with Napoleon-led forces that would last more than a decade. The approaching Napoleonic Wars were marked by not only what David Bell calls their “radically new scope and intensity but also the political dynamic that drove the participants relentlessly toward a condition of total engagement” without restraint.71

In this context, perceptual clarity took on specific moral and political implications in which certain forms of concealment were regarded as a threat to national sovereignty. Vigilant observation was an important component of Britain’s “total war”: citizens were urged to be “on the lookout” for treasonous French sympathizers and spies – it marked the institution of what Anne Secord has called “regimes of watchfulness” that pervaded scientific as well as political observational practices.72 The same year that the Defeat of the Spanish Armada was completed, a Welsh tea-broker named James Tilly Matthews notoriously interrupted a meeting of the House of Commons with claims that the French were sending mesmeric waves across the Channel to gain access to Britain’s naval secrets. Although Matthews was subsequently institutionalized for insanity, his assertion found sympathy among those like the French counterrevolutionary Abbé Barruel, who likewise believed mesmerism was being used to revolutionary ends.73 The threat posed by animal magnetism in this context was twofold: firstly, it was perniciously “French”; and, more importantly, it was a powerful immaterial force that could be neither observed directly nor impeded by physical barriers. Mesmerism articulated faltering efforts in both the political and the scientific establishment to stabilize a correspondence between appearance and reality.

Dazzling Effects

De Loutherbourg’s cultivated effects of perceptual obscurity in Defeat of the Spanish Armada would seem highly objectionable on both counts. Yet the very language that ties his paintings and the Matthews episode together – the literal and conceptual vocabulary of animal magnetism – goes a long way toward explaining why, ultimately, it was not. The observable effects produced by animal magnetism resembled the optical phenomena produced by de Loutherbourg’s painterly legerdemain insofar as both were understood to be somewhat separate or independent from their underlying cause. In the case of mesmerism, one’s physical symptoms were triggered by the presence of magnetic fluid but one could not sense the fluid itself. In a related manner, the spectacular coloring of de Loutherbourg’s painting did not indicate that the sailors actually were bright red; their strange appearance was a byproduct of something else: fire. Both mesmerism and the painting required one to accept a model of indirect causality in which a perceptual effect might be only distantly related to its underlying cause.

In describing their art-viewing experience as if it were mesmeric, de Loutherbourg’s contemporaries were simultaneously domesticating mesmerism by situating it within the sphere of artistic representation and lending the formal exaggerations found in academic art (and their evident impact on the viewer) a light-hearted triviality. The trick lay in recognizing them as illusory, in accepting that however real the effects might appear they should not be taken as a representation of how things actually are. One early nineteenth-century review described Defeat of the Spanish Armada as follows: “Mr. Loutherbourg has chosen the moment of the greatest confusion in the Spanish Fleet, before Calais, as affording the finest opposition of lights, and therefore the greatest contrast of coloring and composition.”74 The Spanish vessel in the foreground, the same review continues, “is detached by the dark shadow from the luminous mass of the burning fire ships.”75 Rather than rival warships, rather than heroic captains or decisive events, de Loutherbourg has painted “a luminous mass” and “clouds of smoke,” rendered with “the greatest contrast of coloring.” The latter was most emphatically displayed in the adjacency of saturated reds and greens in the center of the canvas. The de-masted ship on the left, rapidly being overtaken by churning waves, is laden with men all covered in the same undiluted, unshaded hue, whose intensity does not vary or diminish relative to their distance from the fire. As a result, fully concentrated, bright red heads, arms, and bits of wood are juxtaposed with deep, lustrous green water whose surface is lightly flecked with yellow but is otherwise unaffected by the dramatic luminous effects taking place.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada is important for its emphasis on experiential effects and optical phenomena that are not claiming to correspond to the actual appearance of a historical scene. We cannot say whether de Loutherbourg knew that red and green, in addition to being complementary colors, form positive afterimages of each other – that if one stares at a bright red or green display for several seconds and looks away one will briefly see red where green has been and vice versa. However, as his many years working on the Eidophusikon and creating showpieces for Drury Lane attested, this was someone with an especially sophisticated understanding of how to manipulate the interaction of light and color to make “the hairs of the spectator stand on end.”76 When compared to the civic and moral function to which academic painting was supposed to aspire, de Loutherbourg’s effects ought to have been derided as unprincipled trickery, base deception lacking the intellectual substance that gives history painting merit. Yet de Loutherbourg and his peers, including Henry Fuseli, were painting for an audience who would have long been familiar with popular illusions. One reviewer of his work at Drury Lane in 1776 had noted that in de Loutherbourg’s scenery “the eye of the spectator might be so effectually deceived in a playhouse as to be induced to take the produce of art for real nature.”77 Of his showpieces (standalone displays presented at the end of a play), another historical commentator wrote of de Loutherbourg’s depiction of a shipwreck that “mariners have declared, whilst viewing the scene, that it amounted to reality. […] The illusion was so perfect, that the audience were frequently heard to exclaim, ‘Hark!’”78 De Loutherbourg was certainly chastised for including such effects in his paintings by some critics. For example, of his subsequent Coalbrookdale at Night, a review observed that “the genuine aspect of this Picture is like the nocturnal transparencies which excite so much vulgar imagination in print shops.”79 In 1810, another critic wrote that his seascapes “seem composed of those blue tinctures, which chymists affixe in their shop windows, by night, to dazzle the spectator with a transparent object, that hath no reference to utility in its principles or effects!”80

“Vulgar” and “glaring” as his effects may have been, they did not undermine the basic painterly value of the work. During the final decades of the eighteenth century, the visual deception that was deemed acceptable in the theater was gradually being tolerated and eventually praised in academic painting. According to the artist’s critics, it had become not only possible but easy to accept a nonmimetic relationship between optical effects and underlying causes. However, as Ann Bermingham has argued, this did not remain the case. A distinction was subsequently enforced between theatrical illusionism and academic art such that, “by the middle of the nineteenth century, high art had come to define itself against the illusionistic machinery of popular visual culture.”81 To an extent, we need to recognize the enforcement of this distinction as a reaction against the deeply troubling elision of perceptual experience and theatrical illusionism that haunted both painterly and mesmeric practices at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was by most measures a very successful attraction in late eighteenth-century London, disregards the informational imperatives of marine battle painting and likewise ignores many of the conventions by which history painting more generally laid claim to moral truth. Instead, the painting suppresses important pictorial details with large expanses of smoke and fire, foregrounds the power of immaterial forces over human actors, and displaces its narrative drama onto discordant perceptual phenomena. Here and elsewhere in de Loutherbourg’s work, we find formal devices that reflect contemporaneous ideas about the sublime; and while there is no question that the artist was responding to this aesthetic category (to which I will return), we can recognize aspects of his work that had specific and urgent stakes within a broader set of cultural parameters. This is a “mesmeric” history painting insofar as it represents indirect effects at the expense of mimetic specificity and clarity. Such effects and the readiness with which they were embraced by the painting’s audience answered the pressures that popular forms of entertainment were exerting on the conventions of academic art. However, something else was also happening: a subtle yet palpable retreat from the stability of historical experience and, likewise, from the supremacy of man’s observational powers in the pursuit and authentication of categorical truth.

Observation and Evidence

What did it mean to be a witness or a spectator, if that also meant being acted on by animal magnetism? Direct observation was the ultimate tool with which scientists working in the tradition of Lockean empiricism could verify experimental results.82 By the mid-eighteenth century, “observation had also become,” in the words of Lorraine Daston, “an epistemic category, that is, an object of reflection that had found its way into philosophical lexica and methodological treatises.”83 More precisely, both the performed experiment and its outcome had to be witnessed by a community of experts in order to be admitted to the register of empirical knowledge – although, as Schaffer and Shapin have argued, it was a process whose actors and activities were carefully regulated according to social, intellectual, and institutional criteria.84 A pamphlet written in Mesmer’s defense underscored this point: “Nothing better clears Mesmer of suspected charlatanism than having solicited the scientific community to come witness the effects of his magnetism: it’s on [the basis of] evidence that he wanted to establish and convey his principles.”85 Yet what kind of evidence was Mesmer offering?

The experiential claims made by practitioners of mesmerism were tricky to begin with. They participated in a larger tension between late Enlightenment principles regarding an egalitarian, inclusive, and collective public discourse and the restrictive, elite procedures by which scientific facts were secured. More problematic was the fact that the immediacy granted by direct observation and individual experience eluded the mesmeric patient. One might feel heat, pressure, or pain; one might tremble or faint; one might be compelled to shriek, laugh, or cry. A large variety of symptomatic responses to mesmeric fluid were reported. The only thing that couldn’t be experienced was the presence and movement of magnetic fluid within the body. In other words, the perceptual experience of mesmerism was only ever the experience of its secondary or “side” effects. Discrediting animal magnetism entailed conceding, on some level, that the appearance or the perceptible qualities of the natural world do not always, or do not necessarily, reflect underlying realities.

If one concluded that the fluid did not, in fact, exist, then human bodies were displaying physical effects that had no actual physical cause. So either it did exist, but revealed a grave shortcoming in man’s perceptual acuity, or it didn’t exist, and revealed instead that one could not trust the bodily evidence at hand. Having disproven the existence of a magnetic fluid, Franklin’s commission was forced to conclude that dramatic physical and mental transformations were produced by an imagined, rather than real, agent. This conclusion, in the words of Jessica Riskin, undermined “the principle that sensations were responses to a world outside the mind.”86 Ironically, then, by subjecting mesmerism to so-called rational, empirical scrutiny the commission had unknowingly attributed a profound power to the recesses of the nonrational mind.87 Their experiments, they concluded, merely revealed “the efficacy of the imagination, and the impotence of the magnetism.”88 The evidence displayed by the bodies of Mesmer’s patients could not be trusted. Moreover, their testimony, whatever they claimed to feel, did not have much evidentiary purchase to begin with. Nullius in verba: one could not simply take their word for it.

While not exceeding the limits of pictorial innovation possible at the time, de Loutherbourg’s The Falls of the Rhine and Defeat of the Spanish Armada envisioned a world that could not be perceptually disambiguated, signaling either a failing in man’s powers of observation or a natural world that was, itself, never fully perceptible. He replicated, for the viewer, his own inability to parse what was mere effect from what was true cause. In his paintings, and likewise to a degree in his Eidophusikon, de Loutherbourg cultivated dissonance between appearance and reality – the very dissonance that Franklin’s commission had assumed when debunking mesmerism. The problem here was that the former was in the service of illusionism and the latter in the service of empiricism.

A Hand Reaching Out from the Mist

By way of closing, let us turn to the painted body – a body whose perceptual acuity and physical self-possession were dramatically called into question by animal magnetism. With few exceptions, de Loutherbourg did not engage with the tradition of the neoclassical male nude although one needs only to consult his Deluge (British Museum, 1797), produced for Macklin’s Bible, for proof that he was familiar with its conventions and more than capable of portraying an idealized nude. Nor does it necessarily follow that he was uninterested in the body in both pictorial and conceptual terms. Again and again, de Loutherbourg painted humans who are operated on by perceptually indeterminate or immaterial forces. Again and again, his protagonists are overpowered, vulnerable, attacked, and acted on. Their bodies are defined, in narrative terms, by their powerlessness and are increasingly defined, in pictorial terms, by their formal obscurity. Even their compositional marginality within the majority of his landscapes speaks to a human actor characterized by his limited agency, his material insignificance, and the ease with which the bounded contours of his body are cut through by luminous effects.

Around 1803, de Loutherbourg completed two avalanche paintings, the first of which, An Avalanche in the Alps (Figure 1.6), would become one of de Loutherbourg’s most famous paintings.89 First exhibited at the Summer Exhibition of 1804 (for which de Loutherbourg sat on the powerful Hanging Committee), the work quickly sold to Sir John Leicester. The avalanche was a new class of natural disaster for de Loutherbourg, who was by then an old hand at all manner of storms and combustions, but on a formal level it remained relatively continuous with his earlier work. Perceptual obscurity, unbounded forms, elemental transitions, matter and its various states – the same concerns that had preoccupied him for years – were put to full effect. Beyond the earthen bluff on the left, whose craggy edge divides the composition along a stark diagonal axis, lies a world in flux. Masses of rock and ice cascade downward and cast off a thick spray of snow that overtakes the landscape and fills the sky. Bright passages of alabaster snow become flecked with blue, blended with olive, and are rendered in fine downy strokes where they give way to taupe-hued clouds. Among the layered whites, greens, and grays at the center of the avalanche the categorical distinctions between figure and ground, between shape and color, and between light and the surface it falls on have been completely upended. De Loutherbourg engages with the full spectrum of opacity and transparency in his application of oil paint, whose pigmented particles are densely concentrated in some passages where they form an impasto crust, and elsewhere dispersed, diluted to a thin translucency through which primed canvas can be seen. On the far right, the contours of rocks have been scratched into a gossamer-like layer of paint with the wooden tip of a paintbrush. As in The Falls, the material properties of paint are set at odds with that which is represented: opaque, ponderous stone is almost transparent whereas mist is compacted and substantial.

Figure 1.6 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, An Avalanche in the Alps, 1803, oil on canvas.

Tate Britain. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Avalanche in the Alps is a painting of dissolution. The pictorial indeterminacy evoked in de Loutherbourg’s earlier works is no longer localized nor is it subordinated to a larger visual or narrative structure. Whatever stabilizing operations that had been functional, if tenuous, in his earlier paintings seem to have broken down in the avalanche – itself a natural event about things falling apart. The avalanche is a subject that implicitly resists stabilizing pictorial operations for it is the very disruption of stability that defines it. It announces the catastrophic dissolution of that which was once solid and massive. The chromatic expanse of pigmented opacity that overtakes this portion of the canvas works both with and against mimesis. In its emphasis on material porosity it corresponds to the actual qualities of an avalanche, but in doing so it reproduces the perceptual obscurity that characterizes such an event in nature. It is here that the unbounded vaporous tones that spread across de Loutherbourg’s paintings, what we could call his drive toward “elemental formlessness” are fully realized, “in which,” per Damisch, “the limit of representation, of what is representable, is revealed.”90

What does it mean to encounter this, as a viewer? It is a question the painting itself begins to formulate an answer to. The composition is populated with figures who, mid-flight, have turned to look at the disaster unfolding behind them. At the far left, a single man stands to face the avalanche directly with arms flung open in astonishment. The review in the Sun did not approve, “for, instead of running with all possible speed from such a dreadful danger, they turn, as if to gratify curiosity, and indulge surprise. Even the dog seems to participate in this kind of philosophic wonder.”91 In other words, de Loutherbourg’s figures are spectators of their own mortal peril. Two of their companions in the right foreground are less fortunate. One man, whose backlit form is faintly outlined, has been thrown off a wooden bridge that has buckled under the avalanche. The other man is only present as a single arm that emerges from a cascade of ice and rock just above the bridge, a hand reaching out from the mist. De Loutherbourg included a similar figure in several of his paintings; their bodies are only ever partially shown emerging from a crush of human or natural activity.

What the spectators in the left foreground observe is a world for which their perceptual powers are unequal. This coincides, moreover, with conditions in which human bodies are overtaken by natural forces. They are bodies defined by their helplessness against a power whose contours they cannot see that nonetheless, to borrow a phrase from Franklin’s report, “surrounds and penetrates [their] frame.” At every turn, de Loutherbourg paints a material world whose borders are permeable and whose structural distinctions are suspended. At a certain point the artist also doubted whether the painting’s literal frame could protect it from the influence of nearby paintings; we know from Joseph Farington’s diary (who was likewise on that year’s Hanging Committee) that de Loutherbourg expressed concern about the conditions under which the painting would be displayed at the Summer Exhibition. According to Farington, “he objected to White being in a picture [on the wall] above” his Avalanche out of concern that the color could have undue impact on – could perhaps breach the perceptual environment of – his own landscape.92

On the very level of application of paint we find the artist coupling hardened materiality with porous luminosity. His Storm and Avalanche near the Scheidegg in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen (1803–1804) goes still further, its entire surface pulsing with elemental activity that disavows natural or perceptual fixity.93 This alpine flood – which one review described as “a truly distressing picture”94 – portrays human subjects who are more profoundly exposed to a natural environment of instability and upheaval. It seems revealing that when Turner, directly inspired by de Loutherbourg’s painting, made The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (exhibited 1810), he excluded human figures altogether and reasserted a compositional distinction between material and immaterial forces, creating a stark diagonal separating thickly painted boulder-like blocks of snow from the diluted streaks of gray evoking spray and cloud. In contrast, de Loutherbourg withholds perceptual clarity, suspends material distinctions, and underscores the power of elemental forces over the human subject. Placed in the midst of a pictorial field that is representationally neither cohesive nor self-consistent, de Loutherbourg’s bodies lack pictorial integrity or boundedness.

As a student of Mainauduc, de Loutherbourg would have been taught that the human body is “composed of pipes and pores, beyond conception, and formed of particles, between which, the most minute, and extensive porosity is admitted; through which the passage of atoms and fluids of various denominations, circulate in every direction.”95 These pores, moreover, “allow or admit the passage of superfluous fluids from every part of the human body.”96 Mesmerism, like the nascent fields of electric medicine and physiology, laid particular emphasis on the human body as a network of channels or nerves through which sensations and fluids travel; it was a body whose interior and exterior surfaces are permeable and whose healthy operations include the ready reception and transmission of immaterial agents. De Loutherbourg’s human actors, physically overpowered and formally penetrated, dramatized the problems that inhere in a body defined by its receptivity to an external force over which it lacks control. As one contemporary source on Mesmer had observed, “the dominating power” contained in the body of the magnetizer “acts so astonishingly” on its subject that “nothing can stop them. This power is so strong in M. Mesmer that he can magnetize from the tip of his cane.”97 Recall, as well, that his patients were said to collapse and faint; to grow weak and fall into a deep sleep; to tremble, convulse, and stiffen; to shriek, cry, laugh, stutter, or go completely silent; or any number of involuntary physical responses.

Even the most politically and socially privileged were powerless in the face of animal magnetism. For example, one treatise from 1784 related an episode in which the doctor demonstrated his powers to a small audience gathered in the gardens of the Prince de Soubise. Shortly after Mesmer applied a “magnetical” force to a nearby tree, “three ladies of the company fainted away. The Duchess de C–, the only remaining lady, supported herself upon a tree without being able to quit it. The Count de Mons–, unable to stand, was obliged to throw himself upon a bench. The effects upon M. Ang–, a gentleman of a very muscular frame, were more terrible.” When the doctor’s assistant arrived to release the party from this paralytic state, he, too, came under the influence of the magnetized plant-life, and “the whole company were obliged to remain in this situation for a considerable time.”98 A similar incident was recounted a few years later in England, when, as the result of a mesmeric demonstration, the “Duchess of Devonshire was thrown into Hysterics, Lady Salisbury put to sleep the same morning – And the Prince of Wales so near fainting that he turned quite pale and was forced to be supported.”99 These effects resulted from, on the one hand, a concentration of power in an external source and, on the other, a body defined by its receptivity, its total availability to be acted on and controlled.

De Loutherbourg not only brings to mind the late eighteenth-century proliferation of competing systems for understanding and accessing the natural world. He points to the unreliability of perceptual experience in this process and to a natural world populated with immaterial forces that overwhelm the human subject. His paintings foregrounded the very observational practices that were under contestation; or, rather, they mark their reinvention from tools to authenticate scientific knowledge to mechanisms that can be productively manipulated for entertainment. The favored Gothic tropes of pictorial obscurity, dramatic luminous effects, and unfixed meaning coincided with a weakening consensus as to what constitutes empirical truth, how such truth is verified, and what status the human body might claim in this process. When de Loutherbourg took up the study of animal magnetism in the mid-1780s, it had already been widely discredited by Europe’s leading scientific authorities. Yet it remained a concentrated expression of the limitations of and challenges to certain empiricist ideas about knowledge and what role the body might play in recording, perceiving, displaying, and authenticating that knowledge. Mesmerism suggested that, rather than stabilizing the operations of knowledge production, bodies are easily manipulated, controlled, and overpowered; that bodies act without or against the will of the individual; and that bodies display external symptoms and experience sensations that do not causally relate to “actually existing” causes. Moreover, although de Loutherbourg wasn’t literally portraying mesmerism in his paintings, they nonetheless cultivate effects of perceptual dissonance and causal obscurity, they dwell on the unfixed relationship between immaterial and material, fluid and solid, and they figure, again and again, human bodies that are operated on, influenced by, and powerless against forces that cannot be perceptually pinned down.

In doing so, they point to the gradual unraveling, well underway in the 1780s, of an empirical epistemology that linked perceptual prowess, a self-evident natural world, and scientific knowledge. If de Loutherbourg’s “effects” remain difficult to draw definitive conclusions about, they are very much in keeping with the operations of mesmerism itself. That is to say, the ambiguities of his case are themselves revealing, for they reflect the historical configuration out of which they were born. For all its ambiguities de Loutherbourg’s work does nonetheless suggest some significant ways that artworks may have been responding to important changes afoot in late eighteenth-century thought. To see how they may have been operative in even more explicitly practical and visual forms alike, we can look, with them in mind, to his contemporary in the British art world, Henry Fuseli.

Figure 0

Figure 1.1 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, oil on canvas.

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1974.3.4.
Figure 1

Figure 1.2 Anon. [Mesmer Magnetizing a Patient], 1784, engraving.

Figure 2

Figure 1.3 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, 1788, oil on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 3

Figure 1.4 William Dent, Billy’s Gouty Visit, or a Peep at Hammersmith, 1789, etching. British Museum.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 4

Figure 1.5 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588, 1796, oil on canvas.

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 5

Figure 1.6 Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, An Avalanche in the Alps, 1803, oil on canvas.

Tate Britain. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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